The dirty secret about why following your passion doesn't equal success

Smart people give terrible advice too.

Most people won’t want to admit it until they’re on the receiving end of the bad advice.

Maybe because they don’t want to tarnish the image of the mentors in their lives. Or maybe because they don’t want to face the fact they’ve missed the mark on some advice they’ve given.

Whenever I can, I participate in activities where I can talk to the youth to do my best to have a positive impact on the next generation of leaders. Most recently, I was back at my high school alma mater for alumni council meetings to talk about the current state of the school.

Like most meetings, there was more talking than decision making or action taking, but something stood out in my mind I haven’t been in able to shake. The head of school joined us – as he often does – to give an update on the admissions and college placement of the school. As part of his information sharing, he told a story, a story about a kid who spent their whole thanksgiving break (full week) studying. Why?

Because of a paralyzing fear that the looming SAT would determine the fate of the rest of the student’s life.

Pretty heavy stuff, right?

Also not entirely untrue.

The head of school wants to convince students that if you enjoy the experience, everything works itself out in the end. All you need to do is find a passion -any passion – and success will surely follow.

Imagine telling a client “don’t worry about the results. I’m super passionate about the work I’m doing for you.” It sounds silly, right?

I’m not saying a high school junior needs to shoulder the same pressure as a working adult because that’d be equally silly. Telling a high school junior not to have an eye toward the future? That’s irresponsible.

Success doesn’t just happen to you. It’s something you actively pursue. And with a little luck, you can get there.

What do you consider a success?

You can define success in many ways. As a high schooler, I had a simplistic definition of success – being able to provide for my family in a way that means they never have to suffer some of the financial hardship I did when I was growing up. From there, it boils down to two elements. Step 1 was making sure I wasn’t poor again. Step 2 was establishing a plan for the future.

A lot of successful people have followed their passions, but passion isn’t a prerequisite for – nor does it guarantee – success.

Sometimes there are finite spots in a saturated market

Sometimes there just aren’t enough spots for everyone. Take pro sports as an example.

Everybody wanted to be Michael Jordan in the 90s. Gatorade even had a song about it (which I still listen to sometimes today)! If every adolescent NBA fan blindly chased that dream of NBA superstardom, some would fail, no matter how talented.

Fear of getting paid is rampant

People who work on their passion frequently underprice. They yearn for the approval of those around them, trading profits for praise because we all know things can get weird when you start talking about money. The corollary of that is when you don’t get paid for the activity you spend most of your waking hours on, paying bills can become a challenge. Once you fall into the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck, generating sufficient savings for retirement or wealth to

Passion has a price, and it’s not cheap

Part of the challenge of talking to a head of school – or students – at a high school like the one I attended is the different reality they live. I remember talking to my one of my classmates on the council about it at that time, and he pointed out something that made me laugh. He said I worked as hard as I do so my kids could be the ones who could be the ones living life without a care in the world, free of the increasing pressure that a mistake at 16 will ruin the rest of their lives. And he’s right, but here’s the thing.

Kids need guidance and protection. Of all the species in the world, humans mature at an incredibly slow rate. Taking a year or more just to walk for most other species would make them an easy meal for a species higher up the food chain. Given our young’s required development time, it’s our job (the people who a bit more perspective) – especially as a school administrator – to help steer today’s students in the direction that makes the most sense for their particular circumstance.

If people don’t get that guidance early, they have to learn it later in life – the hard way – when stakes are much higher.

All that is to say, someone has to pay the bills while your passion takes shape. The sooner you take that into account, the better off you’ll be. Balancing your dreams with elements of reality is no small task, but it is possible.

Here’s to you finding your success sweet spot.